The measure of a politician’s commitment to a policy isn’t how often he asks for it but how much he’s willing to trade away to get it. By that measure, President Trump has never seemed committed to the border wall.
When Republicans controlled Congress, Democrats offered Trump a deal: the wall for legalizing the young undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers. “I’ll take a bucket, take bricks, and I’ll start building it myself,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL). “We will dirty our hands in order for the DREAMers to have a clean future in America. Then why haven’t we settled this?” They didn’t settle it because Trump refused the deal.
Now that Democrats control Congress, Trump has offered them exactly nothing in exchange for the wall. In his Tuesday night speech, he didn’t make a new offer, or try to revive Democrats’ old offer. This isn’t the behavior of a president intent on finding the necessary votes for a policy he cares about, much less solving what he calls a humanitarian and national security crisis on the border.
Trump doesn’t care about the wall. He cares about being seen fighting for the wall. From that perspective — Trump’s perspective — Tuesday night’s speech was a success. His base saw him fighting for them. And that may have been all he really wanted.
Trump cares about being seen as a winner, which he seems to believe is in tension with compromising. His sense of negotiations is fundamentally zero-sum: One side has to lose and one side has to win. If Trump gives Democrats anything they can present as a win, he will look like a loser. As such, he can’t give them the concessions that might get him the wall because what he’d be giving up — his image as a winner — is more important to him than the policy he’d be gaining.
If all this sounds ridiculous, well, it is. This is the presidency as reality television, not as governance. The problem is that Trump isn’t simply spinning up some conflict for sweeps week: 800,000 federal workers, and millions more who depend on their work, are pawns in Trump’s display of presidential ego.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer aren’t going to win any points for presentation — the single-podium setup was one of the more awkward political visuals in recent memory — but they clearly had the winning argument. They’re willing to reopen the government and keep negotiating over border security. Trump isn’t.
“There’s an obvious solution: Separate the shutdown from arguments over border security,” Schumer said. “There is bipartisan legislation supported by Democrats and Republicans to reopen government while allowing debate over border security to continue. There is no excuse for hurting millions of Americans over a policy difference.”
Even before tonight’s speeches, voters blamed Trump and Republicans for the shutdown, by a margin of 52 to 33 percent. As the damage mounts, and Democrats keep sending Trump bills to reopen the government, those numbers will continue to climb.
What nervous congressional Republicans needed to see from Trump tonight was that he had either an argument that could turn public opinion or an endgame to break the shutdown stalemate. But all he had, all he’s ever had, is the same old talking points.